In Praise of Martin Scorsese’s Continued Curiosity for Cinema

In the spring of 1990, an 80 year old Akira Kurosawa walked onto the stage of the 62nd Academy Awards and was handed the coveted trophy by a relatively young George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg; an honorary award trophy given to the legendary filmmaker for all that he had contributed to the world of cinema throughout his career. It’s absurd to think that the director of films like Rashomon and Seven Samurai never won a “proper” Oscar, yet that is indeed unfortunately the case. As such, Mr. Kurosawa could have gone the way many directors before (and after) him have and used the moment to massage his ego with his speech. Instead, what transpired was a speech that was not only humble, but surprising.

He would begin by questioning whether such an honour was befitting of him by saying, “I am very deeply honoured to receive such a wonderful prize, but I have to ask whether I really deserve it,” which in and of itself is a comically humble statement. Though it’s in his next line wherein my (and, I’m sure, many other’s) surprise comes in. He would continue on by saying, “I’m a little worried, because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvelous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult.”

Akira Kurosawa in his natural habitat.

To think that Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker whose body of work has been and continues to be studied in film programs across the globe, and whose techniques have inspired the very fabric of the works of his successors, at the age of 80, questions whether or not he truly “understands” cinema, is bewildering. It makes me as an aspiring filmmaker question what this medium I hold in such high regard, and have the utmost of love and respect for, even is. I know cinema’s history, its impacts and uses in politics as well as its functions as a vessel for telling the stories of our society and cultures. I know the key players, and the trends that the medium has followed throughout the decades. Yet, it’s listening to the greats of the past in moments like these that make me reconsider how much I truly “understand” cinema. It makes me wonder, then, that if I’m as riveted by Mr. Kurasawa’s words now, decades after he uttered them, then how did a younger Martin Scorsese — who at the time was well on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s greats — react to them live?

The answer to that I’ll likely never know, but the fact that Mr. Scorsese is now at the ripe age of 80 himself, and still continuing to work having just released his 26th feature film in Killers of the Flower Moon, gives credence to the idea that the man is of a similar belief that one doesn’t simply grasp all that cinema has the potential to be in one lifetime. It’s honestly inspiring to see a director still so fascinated with his craft, even after all these years. Not only that, but his continued involvement in film preservation, working with international organizations to remaster and preserve the works of filmmakers from around the globe from decades past — films that may have been lost due to government censorship, or burned in conflict — as a means to keep history intact, is beyond admirable.

Behind the scenes of Killers of the Flower Moon. (Photo: Apple)
Behind the scenes of Killers of the Flower Moon. (Photo: Apple)

In an interview with The Associated Press, he reminisced about Mr. Kurosawa’s words, saying that he now — being 80 years old — understands what the director meant about understanding cinema. He added that his curiosity still remains, saying, “I’m curious about everything still…That’s one of the things. If I’m curious about something I think I’ll find a way. If I hold out and hold up, I’ll find a way to try to make something of it on film, but I have to be curious about the subject. My curiosity is still there. I couldn’t speak for Quentin Tarantino or others who are able to create this work in their world.”

He brings up Quentin Tarantino to add context to his earlier comments in the interview when asked what he felt about Tarantino announcing that his upcoming film, The Movie Critic, will be his last. Tarantino is a couple decades younger than Mr. Scorsese at age 60, yet he’s made quite the stir saying that this will be his last, seeing how directors often see themselves directing into their 70s. This does not mean that the Kill Bill director couldn’t cross over to other mediums, say theatre plays or novels, but as far as directorial features go, The Movie Critic is seemingly his last; something that he incessantly reminds his fans every time he markets the film.

Christopher Nolan, the director of this year’s hit, Oppenheimer, was asked about both filmmakers in a podcast with CinemaBlend, saying, “The truth is, I understand both points of view. It’s addictive to tell stories in cinema. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very fun. It’s something you feel driven to do, and so it’s a little hard to imagine voluntarily stopping…Quentin’s point has always been that – and he never, very graciously, he’s never specific about the films he’s talking about or whatever – but he’s looking at some of the work done by filmmakers in later years and feeling that if it can’t live up to the heyday, it would be better if it didn’t exist. And I think that’s a very purest point of view. It’s the point of view of a cinephile who prizes film history.”

Scorsese (left) and Tarantino (right). (Photo: Vianney Le Caer / Invision / Associated Press)

Personally, though I understand Tarantino’s viewpoint, I also find it a tad individualistic; seeing the films you’ve directed (and will direct) as a means to cultivate a perfect filmography and legacy. To each their own, and god knows I don’t plan on writing and directing films past the age of 60 if I can help it, but it’s more about the way in which each director views cinema. Scorsese’s desire to continue to create stems from his unwavering curiosity of the world around him, as well as using the medium to reflect himself onto his work. And it’s this exploration of self within the political and societal contexts of your surroundings that propels interesting stories and themes; making me appreciate the Scorsese’s and Kurosawa’s of the world, and whose works I hope more people give attention to — which is to say that you should probably go watch Killers of the Flower Moon.

Shaz Mohsin

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